Paul Holmes: Pop King's reign ends with floods

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Funny how and where you notice things. I was flicking around CNN the other day to see highlights of the memorial service for Michael Jackson.

And, by the way, CNN is freaky these days. In their desperate battle with Fox News, all of the stiff, boring CNN presenters are pretending to have developed personalities. It is quite odd seeing their throwaway comments, their de-formalisation. They fumble to be unwooden.

CNN has also glammed up its women, in the manner of Fox. To be a woman working on a Fox show you appear to have to be Miss America. Even the news and political analysts, if they are women, are glamorous.

However, CNN persists in using a very unlikeable person called Jeanne Moos, whose voice tries to push you away. Peter Arnett, I recall - and I never really heard him speak ill of anyone - told me once he could not stand Jeanne Moos but I do not remember why.

Peter was unusual. I sat talking to him in a deserted cafe in the Viaduct one afternoon to get briefed for an interview we were going to do together that night. I was going over stuff he wanted to tell me and to sort out what the most interesting areas of discussion would be. This, of course, was before his sudden, bizarre fall from grace at CNN after being its star hero after the opening of the first Gulf War.

I do not remember much of what he told me that afternoon, but I seem to remember it was quite intimate stuff about stories he had covered and the people he covered them with. What I also remember is how dyed his hair was and how loudly he spoke and wondering whether the only other man in the cafe, a forlorn waiter, would think I was weird because I was sitting there with a man who was shouting at me, albeit in a jovial way, across a very small table. He seemed not to realise he was doing it, shouting at me with that powerful voice in that strange trans-Pacific accent he had developed. I imitated him for days with great hilarity at the radio station.

Peter had a difficult relationship, he once told me, with the commanding general in the first Gulf War, General Norman Schwarzkopf. The relationship went right back to Vietnam. From January through till early April 1968, American Marines were under terrible siege at a legendary place called Khe Sanh. They had run by surprise into a massive group of North Vietnamese soldiers and hunkered down. The Americans were cut off. Supplying them for 2 months was a major exercise. The situation was desperate. Schwarzkopf, a Marine major then, was there at Khe Sanh.

The North Vietnamese attacked the American perimeter mercilessly every night for weeks. Arnett, an AP correspondent in Vietnam, made his way to Khe Sanh and spent time there. Say what you like about Peter Arnett, his record cuts the mustard anywhere. Perhaps Schwarzkopf did not like what Peter reported. No officers liked what the media reported out of that war.

Peter has been gone from CNN for a long time now. Wolf Blitzer seems to be one of the main presenters, broadening his role beyond pure politics. Wolf, however, is a plodder and a grey one to boot. Whatever Wolf is, he is not Speedy Gonzalez. Wolf is never going to dazzle you with agility, mercury, guile or variation of pace. Wolf goes at one speed. Frankly, Wolf has the presentation skills of a brick.

Fox News, on the other hand, offers real, seductive personalities. No matter what you think of them and their channel, whatever you think of Bill O'Reilly, or the bullying Sean Hannity and the waspish Greta Van Susteren, they are human and funny, they attack, and they hold their opinions ferociously. I watched as Van Susteren went up to Alaska last year, from where you can see Russia. This, after Sarah Palin was named as John McCain's running mate. Van Susteren went to interview and get to know Palin's husband, whom she insisted on referring to as "First Dude". I thought she was going to jump him.

I know, of course, that Fox is to the right of Attila the Hun, but at least it entertains you and connects. But you can only have so much of it. Even Rupert Murdoch, so I read in the book published recently about his life and fortunes, The Man Who Owns the News, can barely contemplate Bill O'Reilly without holding his nose. O'Reilly, for all of his pontification about the lives and motives of others, faced a sexual harassment suit some years back.

Anyway, as I said, I was watching CNN for highlights of the Michael Jackson memorial at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles. It was quite something. In fact, it was stunning. It was also normal and moving. There remains the worry that there was oddity in his attitude to little boys, and yet ... was there? Maybe he was just the difference between talent and genius, for surely he was a genius.

Having lawyers judge Michael Jackson does not seem adequate or right, somehow. His daughter Paris' heart-wrenching tribute to her father was very special. In fact, for the fortunes of the Jackson family, it was pure gold.

What was special about Michael's children was how normal they seemed. They are all beautiful. My wife also observed that Prince Michael II is a mini-Michael.

They may have had their difficulties, the Jacksons, but when the chips are down they pull together. I would think that if you attacked one of them, you attack them all. There might have been much brutal, bloody-minded and determined whipping of the Jackson siblings into shape for their careers, but there is an awful lot of love too. No one could fail to see that.

Another thing you would have noticed too, is that no matter how close they all stand together, each face finds a clear line to the camera. They know, after their years of performing, how to frame a shot. They know that if their faces cannot see the camera, then the camera cannot see their faces.

Suddenly, CNN cut to the international weather. All kinds of storms were being reported across Asia. "And," said the cheerful woman in front of the map, "in Assam, which is, of course, in northeastern India, 500,000 people have been displaced by flooding ..." Just like that. And on she went to the weather somewhere else. Five hundred thousand people? Flooded out? I went on the web.

Indeed, it is true. Hundreds of villages have been flooded and last Sunday five were wiped off the map. And suddenly half a million are homeless. Only one man had died, however. He fell out of a boat.

I had no idea from our own news in New Zealand that this was going on. It reminds me of the old question in Western journalism about how many Asian people have to die or be caught up in disaster before we bother to report it. Imagine what coverage we would be giving the story if 500,000 people were homeless here or in Australia.

Imagine how much coverage even 20 people being made homeless in New Zealand would get.

I am not castigating our news services. Even CNN International brushed over the number quite cheerfully in its weather forecast. It is just, I suppose, that we really are so used to things happening to large numbers of people in Asia, and have become immune to the scale of the disasters that befall them.

Because we are human, we were more interested this week in the floods affecting the Jackson family - the floods of grief, tears and emotion felt round the world.

- Herald on Sunday

* * *

Paul Holmes-John Campbell

Last weekend, in his Herald on Sunday column, Paul Holmes said he had questions in his own mind whether John Campbell had directly interviewed "Robert", a person claiming to be one of those responsible for the theft of the Waiouru war medals.

TV3 has assured both the Herald on Sunday and Paul Holmes that Campbell did, indeed, meet and interview the man.

The Herald on Sunday and Holmes accept the assurances from TV3 that Campbell met and interviewed the man and we are happy to set the record straight.

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